Notley’s False Majority: Why It’s Time to Fix Canada’s Electoral System

While progressives across Canada relish the NDP victory in Alberta last week, an inconvenient truth about the election results has been largely overlooked: Rachel Notley secured her majority government with just 41 per cent of the popular vote.

While only four in 10 Albertans voted for Notley’s party, the first-past-the-post electoral system gave the NDP 53 seats in the legislature — or a 62 per cent majority.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a majority with just 40 per cent of the vote in the 2011 federal election, Canadians on the left side of the political spectrum were up in arms.

Fast-forward four years to the Alberta election and a similar situation with vote-splitting played out — it's just this time it happened on the right.

In last week's Alberta election, the Progressive Conservatives won 28 per cent of the vote, but ended up with just 10 seats — or 12 per cent of seats in the legislature. Meanwhile, the Wildrose party earned fewer votes than the PCs (24 per cent), but managed to claim 21 seats — more than twice as many as the PCs.

“After an election in which 798,000 votes went nowhere, Rachel Notley has a golden opportunity to bring a more democratic voting system to Alberta,” wrote Fair Vote Canada on its website.

Fair Vote represents more than 55,000 Canadians advocating for voting system reform.

“Proportional representation is a long-time policy of the Alberta NDP. We call on the premier-elect to act on electoral reform,” said Yared Mehzenta, spokesperson for Fair Vote Canada’s Edmonton chapter. “Given the distortion of the popular vote, Notley must ensure Albertans will have equal and effective votes in future elections.”

In total, 53 per cent of Alberta voters cast votes for losing candidates, according to Fair Vote Canada. The group says a system of proportional representation could reduce that number to as low as five per cent.

“The legislature Albertans voted for on Tuesday is not the legislature the voting system gave them,” said Mark Hambridge, spokesperson for Fair Vote’s Calgary chapter.

National Post columnist Stephen Maher called out the undemocratic election results.

“It’s hard to feel sorry for the long-coddled Alberta Tories, but they were stiffed,” he wrote. “In Edmonton, 68,672 Progressive Conservatives dragged themselves to the polls and failed to get a single seat. The NDP claimed all 19.”

Maher points to Germany’s mixed-member proportional representation system and notes that if Alberta were using that system, the NDP would have 36 MLAs, the PCs would have 25, the Wildrose would have 23 and the Liberals three. A PC-Wildrose coalition could have governed and would have represented more Albertans in the process.

While that scenario likely makes NDP supporters cringe, let’s not forget that the NDP and Liberals toiled in obscurity for 44 years while Albertans felt they had little choice but to vote for a party that had a "chance of winning" (i.e. not the NDP or Liberals). Just as quickly as the NDP skyrocketed to popularity, it could plummet in the polls and be relegated to the back burner for another four decades — unless a fairer electoral system is put in place.  

In the last election, the Alberta NDP ran on its support for proportional representation, but the party quietly dropped that line from its platform in February.

Bringing that policy to the forefront now — at a time when it isn’t advantageous to the NDP (the problem with implementing electoral reform is it’s rarely in the self interest of the governing party) — would be a courageous and principled move. And it may even help Notley gain some respect from the 52 per cent of Alberta voters who are disgruntled with the election results.  

Indeed, with the right-wing reeling from its loss in Alberta, there’s never been a better time to talk about electoral reform — which has not had much traction with conservatives in recent years.

Federally, both the NDP and the Green Party support a move to proportional representation. In the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives won a majority of the seats in the House of Commons with just 40 per cent of the popular vote. The votes of seven million Canadian voters elected no one. The Liberals and the Greens were hurt the most by the first-past-the-post system, with the Liberals earning 19 per cent of the popular vote, but only 11 per cent of seats, and the Greens winning four per cent of the vote, but only 0.3 per cent of seats.

For those who worry that electoral reform would squander the Alberta NDP’s chance at winning a subsequent election, surely those who believe in a fair democracy should support reform even when they're not losing elections — after all, that's the only way reform will ever happen.  Besides — given the hysterical reaction to the NDP victory — it’s not difficult to foresee a situation in which the NDP falls out of favour with Alberta voters by the next election.  Without proportional representation, the party could easily be wiped off the map.

Electoral reform is fundamentally about fixing an outdated, undemocratic system and making each vote count  — and that’s something people of all political stripes should be able to get behind.

Photo: Don Voaklander via Flickr

Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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